To follow the ‘rules’ of the gospel, focus on the principles, says BYU–Hawaii president

In BYU–Hawaii’s first devotional of the fall semester, President John S.K. Kauwe III showed an image of his Fall 1997 report card when he was an undergraduate student at BYU. He had been a straight-A, valedictorian student in high school. But after doing poorly on his first organic chemistry exam, President Kauwe felt so discouraged that he gave up on his classes and received a D grade for that semester.

An image of President John Kauwe's Fall 1997 BYU transcript was shown during his BYU–Hawaii devotional address on Sept. 8, 2020.
An image of President John Kauwe’s Fall 1997 BYU transcript was shown during his BYU–Hawaii devotional address on Sept. 8, 2020. Credit: Screenshot, YouTube

He explained that his motivation to do his schoolwork resulted in fulfilling requirements but not learning the material. “Unsurprisingly, the result was that I learned and remembered very little from my schooling, even when I did OK in a course,” President Kauwe said.

But later in his undergraduate and graduate career, “I began to realize that I had to master the content so I could use it for my career,” he said. “I realized I didn’t need grades; I needed knowledge.”

As he began to understand the principle of obtaining knowledge was more important than the “rules” associated with getting good grades, this understanding changed his life. 

“And it turns out, when you master the content for a class and make it your own knowledge, you make it a part of you, exams go a lot better.”

In the Sept. 8 devotional, broadcast from Salt Lake City, President Kauwe and his wife, Sister Monica S. Kauwe, spoke on the importance of understanding the principles behind the rules of the gospel.

Sister Kauwe introduced the devotional topic, saying, “We felt prompted to talk about principles and how a strong understanding of principles leads to great blessings.”

President Kauwe based much of his message on a July 2017 address Brother Tad R. Callister, then Sunday School general president, gave to the LDS Educators Association, titled, “The Power of Principles.”

President John S.K. Kauwe III speaks during the BYU–Hawaii devotional broadcast on Sept. 8, 2020.
President John S.K. Kauwe III speaks during the BYU–Hawaii devotional broadcast on Sept. 8, 2020. Credit: Screenshot, YouTube

Brother Callister defined principles as “eternal truths that are condensed and framed in such a way as to promote our maximum agency, thus making possible our maximum growth.” This is in contrast to rules, which are “usually more prescriptive and thus, to a degree, may restrict our agency and thus restrict our growth.”

President Kauwe also quoted Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who said, “Principles are encapsulated knowledge, packaged to be applicable to a wide variety of circumstances. It is worth great labor to reduce information we gather to succinct statements of principle.”

“This semester’s unique circumstances create a clear emphasis on the importance of principles in governing our lives and actions,” President Kauwe said. Because standard practices and rules have been disrupted due to COVID-19, BYU–Hawaii faculty and staff are having to rely on principles of secular and spiritual education to make adjustments to day-to-day responsibilities. 

Reflecting back on his own higher education experience of learning about and practicing the principle of obtaining knowledge, President Kauwe spoke about “some core principles that relate to learning and to adherence to the gospel and university standards in these times that are so different from our recent past.”

Rules play a large role in keeping aligned with principles. If it wasn’t for following the rules associated with grading, President Kauwe wouldn’t have been blessed by the principle of obtaining knowledge before he understood it. “Over time, those rules helped me understand the principle and see its value,” he said. In turn, practicing the principle made keeping the rules easier.

President John Kauwe and his wife, Sister Monica Kauwe, are seated before the BYU–Hawaii devotional on Sept. 8, 2020.
President John Kauwe and his wife, Sister Monica Kauwe, are seated before the BYU–Hawaii devotional on Sept. 8, 2020. Credit: Screenshot

President Kauwe has had a similar experience of learning and practicing principles associated with commandments. In his professional life, he was often involved in meals or social settings where alcohol is served. Most of his colleagues knew that his faith prohibits consuming alcohol and many times, they would step in for him and say he couldn’t drink.

However, this exchange made him a little uneasy. “After considering the situations carefully, I realized that the source of my discomfort was that I felt like I was giving my colleagues and friends the idea that I was just blindly following a rule,” he said.

The next time a similar situation arose, President Kauwe changed his response. “I said ‘Actually, I can drink. Any member of my church could. But I believe that God has provided me with guidelines for my life, and I believe that my obedience to those guidelines brings happiness to me and my family. I choose not to drink because I desire those blessings.’”

The rule in the Word of Wisdom is “Do not consume alcohol,” he explained. The principle is that making and honoring covenants and following the direction of living prophets brings happiness in this life and the next. Focusing on this principle makes following the Word of Wisdom easier.

“So it is with the Honor Code and Dress and Grooming Standards,” President Kauwe said. BYU–Hawaii students and employees should be following these standards wherever they are around the world. “As people who value the principle of integrity, we choose to uphold those standards to which we have committed.”

In her address, Sister Kauwe shared the story of Jesus healing a man on the sabbath, found in John 5. As the man carried his bed off the street, the Jews’ response to this miracle was to criticize the man for carrying his bed and Jesus for performing a miracle on the Sabbath day.

Sister Monica S. Kauwe speaks during the BYU–Hawaii devotional broadcast on Sept. 8, 2020.
Sister Monica S. Kauwe speaks during the BYU–Hawaii devotional broadcast on Sept. 8, 2020. Credit: Screenshot, Youtube

“Jesus’ reply to their attacks was to teach a simple principle: ‘But Jesus answered them, my Father worketh hitherto, and I work’” (John 5:17).

The leadership of the Jews took the rules of the sabbath day as detailed in the Law of Moses and made them even more complex and restrictive. In the process, they lost sight of the principle of the sabbath day entirely.

“Rules have a purpose,” Sister Kauwe said. “They can guide and protect us while we learn to live by the principles that will keep us safe and happy. But our goal must be to learn and live by the principles that underlie the rules.”

Following the Lord’s commandments helps each person gain a deeper understanding of the principles, she said. “And if we continuously strive to live by the righteous principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we can be filled with the light of Christ.”

In this time when BYU–Hawaii students and staff are unable to be together, “it is vital that each of you and each of us embrace the principle of obtaining knowledge and take ownership of your education experiences,” President Kauwe said in closing.

“We will be blessed as we live the principles of the gospel and honor our covenants with our Heavenly Father.”